North East place names

PUBLISHED: 11:47 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

Walkworth Castle. Picture courtesy of Northumberland Tourism

Walkworth Castle. Picture courtesy of Northumberland Tourism

Ever passed a signpost to a North East town or city and wondered, where did that name come from? The answers aren't always obvious... WORDS BY ANTHONY JOISCE

Do you ever wonder about the origin of some of the names of places we may see every day? There must be some explanation for them. But if there is reason behind them, why are they frequently made up of words that individually don't seem to mean anything?

On a whirlwind trip around the North East, I have taken a look at some of the reasons places are named as they are, and at some of the history behind them. We're starting with the obvious. I've lost count of the number of times someone has asked, 'Why is it called "Newcastle"? It isn't new.'

However, when the castle that gave the city its name was built by Robert Curthose, eldest son of William the Conqueror, it was constructed on the foundations of a Roman fort called Pons Aelius, so he called it his "new castle". The town grew up around it, developed and spread. My little red history book, by W.W. Tomlinson says of Newcastle: 'Beautiful for situation will be the mental comment of the spectator who gazes on Newcastle.'

If we head east, toward the coast, we find some more obscure names. Everyone in the North East knows Whitley Bay - a big attraction to many in the summer and with its neon lights, bars, amusement arcades and the beach it is easy to see why so many come. But where does 'Whitley Bay' come from? In Old English it means 'bay of the white clearing' from 'hwit', meaning white and 'ley' meaning 'bay'. Maybe when it was first named the reference was to a white sandy bay. You find this double naming in lots of places, including Newcastle.

The name Tyne is derived from Old Celtic and means, simply, river; so the Tyne is the River River. Mr Tomlinson, in my little red book, says of Whitley Bay that 'this very popular seaside resort that has grown during the last few years from a small village to a place of considerable importance ...is pleasantly situated amongst fields.'Well, it was written a while ago.

Moving on from Whitley Bay to two other curiously names places: Seaton Delaval and Seaton Sluice. Seaton is taken from Old English and means 'farmstead by the sea' from 's', meaning 'sea' and 'ton' from Old English 'tun', meaning an enclosed area.

Delaval shows the ownership of the area by the De la Val family. 'Sluice' is more obscure. A study of local history suggests that there were sluice gates at the harbour entrance to hold back the water at low tide, allowing the sailing ships that carried salt and bottles from the port to remain afloat.

Our final trip to a coastal town is that of Warkworth, still being watched over by the beautiful castle. Built on the old foundations of a Norman fort,Warkworth Castle largely dates from the 12th century, with some 19th century restorations.Warkworth means 'Weorca's enclosure', from the personal name of 'Weorca' and from 'worth', simply meaning 'enclosure'. Who Weorca was remains a mystery, but he must have been a powerful figure.

Of Warkworth, our little red companion states that a Mr Freeman said the castle is 'of less historic fame than Alnwick. It stands as a castle should stand, free from the disfigurement of modern habitation'. Next we head north to the historic market town of Alnwick.

The name here means 'dwelling by the river Aln', taken from 'wick' meaning 'dwelling', and the river having been named many years ago by the Celts as the Aln.

There is an anonymously-written limerick that plays on the spelling, and pronunciation of the town name:

There was a mechalnwick of Alnwick
Whose opinions were very Germalnwick
So when war had begun
He went off with a gun
The proportions of which were Titalnwick.

Okay, it isn't all that funny, but lecturing you on Old English all the time wouldn't be much fun either.


Praise once more comes from Mr Tomlinson saying that 'Alnwick ranks with Newcastle among Northumbrian towns, both in regard to size and importance.'

Travelling south west, we reach picturesque Rothbury. Surrounded by Rothbury forest, it's a magnet for tourists. This little town can get very busy, particularly with motorcyclists, who like to tour the surrounding country roads.

The name means 'Hrotha's stronghold'. Hrotha, again is the name of a powerful person - who it was is now lost to the passing of time. Bury is from old 'burh', which means 'fortified' or 'protected' place.

On Rothbury the little red book says that it stands '...on the north bank of the finest and most famous trout stream in the county...Rothbury, the capital of Coquetdale'.

Following an oddly constructed route around the country, we reach Hexham. Like Alnwick, it is a market town with a very rich history. An abbey was founded in Hexham in 674 by Wilfrid, Bishop of York, who had been given the manor by queen Etheldreda for helping her in a disagreement with her husband, King Egfrith. Etheldreda wanted to remain a virgin for religious reasons and her husband was understandably unhappy about this. Quite how it turned out in the end I wouldn't like to say, but if Etheldreda gave away a manor, then Wilfrid must have been a great help. The abbey was sacked by the Danes in 876 and was replaced by an Augustinian Priory in 1114. The priory church is still standing today.

Hexham's history is reflected in its name: 'warrior's home', from Old English 'Haguldstad' meaning 'warrior' and 'ham' meaning 'home'. Again Mr Tomlinson is complimentary: 'The district of which Hexham is the centre comprises all that the most enthusiastic of antiquaries and the most devoted of nature-worshippers could desire.'

Finally we travel to another town imbued with history. Durham means 'island with a hill'. The spectacular Durham Cathedral, built by the Normans, stands above the town on a sandstone hill. It has been voted the 'best-loved British building' in a Radio 4 poll. Durham became 'Land of the Prince Bishops' when William the Conquerer finally took the city and appointed William Walcher as the first Prince Bishop. This position was the combination of the powers of the Bishop, with those of Earl of Northumbria. 'Prince Bishop' did not come into use until centuries later, but is a good description of those that held the post.

So although we have only scraped the surface of the historic and fascinating place names of the North East, they are small pockets of knowledge that may improve your day as you pass a signpost.

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